This essay was cited among “Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2018” in “The Best American Essays,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019 edition.
One day in August of 2016, my husband and I flew from Boston to Minneapolis, picked up a rental car, and set out for Spicer, Minn.
The drive, long familiar, takes two hours. It begins in the orderly sprawl of the Twin Cities, then passes through towns increasingly compact, connected by only a two-lane highway. On either side runs a patchwork of fields, green and gold in summer, that steadily flattens, yielding to the sky. Clouds layer into a far-off distance, as though nothing this good can be repeated enough.
Though I have lived on the East Coast for more than 40 years, these surroundings constitute my home landscape. Whenever I return, they invariably relax my grip on the world. This time, though, the effect was muted. For once, no place felt better than another.
Our destination was the cottage on Green Lake that had been occupied by members of my mother’s family for more than 100 years. Its most recent owner was her younger sister, Mary. Ill with cancer, Mary had died in the cottage just before the Fourth of July. We were there to attend her memorial service.
Though rooted in northeastern South Dakota, my immediate family crossed into Minnesota every summer, bound for the lake. The family cottage, in a prime location on the southern shore, had been purchased in 1911 by my great-grandfather Cornelius Berghuis. (The family name was later changed to Burges.) For 38 years, Cornelius owned and edited a newspaper in Clara City, a town 35 miles from Spicer. Additional income came from his roles as postmaster and local census taker. But otherwise, newspapering supported Cornelius, his wife, Wilhelmina, and their nine children. During those years, the population of Clara City reached 800; family lore holds that the Clara City Herald boasted a paid subscription list of 750.
The cottage eventually passed to my grandfather Charles and then to his younger daughter, Mary. But because her memorial service was to be in Brookings, S.D., where she resided most of the year, our stop overnight would be brief. Our route the next day took us past Clara City, then past Dawson, Minn., where the two oldest of the six Burges boys, Ted and my grandfather, briefly ran a newspaper together.
Among the storehouse of Burges photos is a faded black-and-white of Ted and Charles in their Dawson print shop. Uncle Ted, the oldest and in my view the most perfectly handsome of the Burges boys, was caught at an odd moment, his mouth slightly agape.
“Ted looks retarded,” my grandmother Lucille observed flatly, looking at the picture years later.
Key facts about why the Dawson experiment was short-lived have gone missing, though it is possible to guess. Shortly the two brothers and their wives took separate paths. Around 1930, in South Dakota towns barely an hour apart, Ted and Charles Burges each acquired newspapers of their own.
A few days before our trip, I was laid off from my job at The Providence Journal, in Rhode Island. I had worked there, in various positions, for more than three decades. Like many newspapers, the Journal has been struggling against declining circulation and shrinking advertising revenue, while trying to reinvent itself in a digitized world.
The interval between 1895, when Great-grandfather Cornelius entered the newspaper business, and the day I walked out of The Providence Journal for the last time spanned 121 years. Yet my family’s history is barely a paragraph in what feels, for most people in the industry, like a much larger story of looming extinction: the death altogether of American newspapers. Faced with falling revenues, an estimated 126 daily papers closed during the last decade. Staff cuts have hit nearly all the survivors. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom jobs at U.S. papers declined by 45 percent between 2004 and 2017, to around 39,000. In the 16 months between January 2017 and this past April, more than a third of the largest U.S. newspapers laid off staff.
These days, one of two predictions is generally advanced. The first is that newspapers will weather the current upheaval and emerge with a new “business model.” This restructuring will involve finally, somehow, getting readers and advertisers to pay adequately for a product available in both in print and digital form.
The favored expression for this elusive magic is “monetize”: if only newspapers knew how to monetize all this great reporting, writing, editing ... all this hidden toil, the fruits of which people now expect to see on the internet for free.
In this vision of the future, more newspapers will perhaps become nonprofits,
deriving most of their support from readers, foundations and philanthropists. The other, much darker view is that newspapers will simply die, in a process no one knows how to stop. In this view, what is happening to newspapers resembles climate change.
That August, as my husband and I continued on our way across the Burges family map, my aunt’s death opened into a larger, more inchoate mourning. It struck me that no one in my family worked at a newspaper anymore; I had been the last, and now I was out. Nor did any living relatives now remain in South Dakota. My family may have left a trail through scattered archives straddling two states, but their exertions felt disembodied, less real to me than the breezes ruffling the corn. So many words we had laid down, week after week, as though this landscape of ours signified nothing larger, but was merely a blank page to be filled.
Somewhere between Minnesota and South Dakota, the terrain flattens still more. My husband and I passed the turnoff for my hometown — the place where Grandpa Charles had settled to become publisher of the Milbank Herald Advance, and where both my parents are buried. A half-hour later we were gliding down the main street of Clear Lake, Uncle Ted’s town. Clear Lake has a population of about 1,300, and even at 25 miles per hour can be shed in a matter of minutes.
As in so many small Midwestern towns, the highway through Clear Lake still doubles as the main commercial corridor. Other towns, as they grew, announced their wagers on the future with new highways that funneled traffic along the outskirts of town. Clara City did this, and Dawson. But the main highway still runs through Clear Lake like a zipper, passing what once was Uncle Ted’s house, a modest brick structure I had thought enviably grand as a child because it had a fireplace.
Not every newspaper shaped by a Burges sibling materialized along our route.
Uncle Harold worked for papers in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Montana before settling in as the publisher of the San Clemente (Calif.) Daily Sun- Post. A small booklet printed in memory of Uncle Clarence, the family’s third- born, notes that he was working for the daily Chippewa Herald-Telegram, in Wisconsin, when he was fatally stricken with tuberculosis. Uncle Clarence left the newspaper business at just 24, having barely begun.
When I started at The Providence Journal as a reporter, in the 1980s, I was not much older. I was also, somewhat unusually, female. I swiftly learned that my upbringing at a small-town weekly did not apply. I had landed in the utterly foreign world of a thriving daily, where people really did pick up the phone and bark, “City desk!” The Journal, privately owned by a prominent Yankee family, was thick with reporters, editors, photographers, and graphic artists. It had its own Washington bureau, even its own car, known as Car One, to be used by whichever reporter was assigned to cover night cops in Providence.
Along with staffing every conceivable beat in the capital city, the Journal operated 11 news bureaus, including two that thrust insouciantly over the state line into Massachusetts. Through these satellite offices, the paper covered virtually all of the state’s 39 cities and towns, each reporter jealously guarding turf that at times seemed no larger than a raised vegetable bed.
In those years, the Providence Journal Company had expanded to become a media empire that owned, along with the state’s premier daily, TV stations in Kentucky, Arizona, and New Mexico; cable systems in New York, California and Florida, as well as several in southern New England; and even a few mobile phone operations.
With a combined daily circulation of 207,000, the morning Journal, along with its afternoon counterpart the Evening Bulletin, reached an estimated 56 percent of adult residents in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. On Sunday, with 260,000 subscribers, the paper embraced more than two- thirds of this population, a market penetration considered remarkable even for its day. (The Journal did have a ways to go, however, to equal the nearly 95 percent penetration that Great-grandfather Cornelius claimed in Clara City.)
For any writer, especially the paper’s roughly 50 bureau reporters, landing a story on page one was so rare it demanded celebration. When I began, the staff on the news side (excluding advertising, circulation and other departments) consisted of some 350 employees. The day I left, daily circulation stood at 70,000. The paper, gradually reduced in physical size as well as number of pages, was being produced by 37 people.
In a state notorious for political scandal and habitual misbehavior, the kind of coverage The Providence Journal provided in its heyday needed little justification. Yet such thoroughness was not inevitable. The Journal had no tenable rival, and could have gotten by doing less. The decision to plow profits back into the paper, enhancing its quality as well as its reach, had been made deliberately, by publisher Michael P. Metcalf.
Rhode Islanders tended to view Metcalf’s journalistic octopus as complacent, even arrogant. They also expected the Journal to call. Few ever seemed surprised when the telephone rang and a Journal reporter was at the other end. One colleague observed that you could call any South County farmer, any Pawtucket collision repairman or homemaker in remotest Burrillville, and be told, with all the savvy of a Beltway insider: “Well, this is just on deep background.”
The distinction was one of many things I had to learn in a long, often painful apprenticeship. It was not just the ways of a busy metropolitan daily that were alien to me. There was the matter of Rhode Island itself. I was stunned by how brashly Rhode Islanders took each other on; by the fierceness of their ethnic loyalties; by the unapologetic maneuvering and self-dealing of the political class. Those few who seemed reliably upright, and there were some, stood out like giraffes on a chinchilla farm.
I spent the first few years in a state of confused disbelief. “What is there?” I learned to ask, heading out into the field or picking up the phone. The answer only occasionally matched my preconceptions. I came out the other end assuming that no one was to be trusted — a regrettable occupational hazard certainly, but an irreproachable starting point for anyone whose job is to gather the news.
When I was 3 years old, my grandfather Charles abruptly died of a stroke. My parents moved in with Grandma Lucille, temporarily as everybody assured everyone else, to help her get the paper out. There we would remain. My mother’s hometown would become mine. I was said to express my feelings about this move by giving up walking (which did prove temporary). My brother, Charles, one year older and always a more affable child, rolled with it, while continuing his peculiar habit of running on his tiptoes.
My father abandoned his fledging career as a high school music teacher, and learned the printing trade. My mother gradually took on the job of editor. Outlandishly for a town of 3,500, they found themselves locked in a struggle against a competing weekly. Both papers were now run by women editors, each with a near-mystic reverence for the project of her deceased father. Neither would give way.
Yet the theater of operation was as different from Rhode Island as a go-kart track from Daytona. In a town thick with churches, and in which the murmurings of Christian thought had the constancy of the nearby creek, hurt feelings were of supreme concern. This meant that the most sensational news either never made it into the paper or was buried somewhere well beyond the reports of excellent harvests and 4-H pie-baking champions. People in actual trouble with the law, though few, were an embarrassment to all. The particulars may have been widely discussed, but they were seldom committed to print.
The same spirit apparently reigned when Great-grandfather Cornelius served as the unofficial watchdog of Clara City. On Oct. 16, 1903, the Herald dutifully reported a “bastardy case,” but noted: “We don’t care to go into details.”
As I grew, I often failed to see the point of the family occupation. In a world as self-censoring as ours, why print anything at all? To my mind, the worst offenders were the “locals,” small items about people celebrating special occasions, or dropping in on each other just because.
When I was old enough, I sometimes helped out by setting these stories into type, using the new computerized system that had replaced hot lead. The hours were long and dull. Writing feature stories, which I sometimes did in the summer, and my column on high school life, was only marginally better.
Entering college, I did not have the least desire to work for a newspaper. I did, however, yearn to be a writer. When I read James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” it was as though a shade snapped open on the world I thought I knew. A few smitten years later, I emerged from the creative writing program at Brown University with an under-baked novel. If evidence of my genius was slow to accumulate, a living wage was even slower. I fell back on newspapers — for writers, for me, the secure place.
With nearly unavoidable symbolism, Brown is perched on Providence’s College Hill. Reaching the Providence Journal building requires descending and crossing a river to enter the city’s grittier precincts. The Journal was launched in 1829, 35 years before Cornelius Berghuis’s parents left the Netherlands to make a home in the American Midwest. By the time I signed on, it routinely described itself as the oldest major daily newspaper in continuous publication in the United States.
I was sent first to the Pawtucket bureau and the next year to West Warwick, where the bureau chief was a courtly white-haired gentleman named John Lake. He recounted how the Journal had taken immense pride in not laying off a soul during the Great Depression. It was said all over Rhode Island, he told me leaning in with a telling look, that if you could get a job at theJournal, you were set for life.
To a young woman still struggling to learn the craft, he could not have offered greater reassurance. In Pawtucket, one of my earliest assignments involved talking to workers massed outside the manufacturing plant where they had just lost their jobs. I felt keenly distressed for them. Where were they to go? What would they do?
Yet already, I was developing the kind of detachment that comes with the terrain, and without which it can be impossible to function. A bizarre fiction implants itself in journalists, or at least it did in me, and it is simply this: nothing will hurt you, because you are just there to observe.
I doubt there is a coal miner, sewing-machine operator, or laid-off middle manager in America who will harbor much pity for displaced newspaper reporters. We may have taken down their lamentations and given voice to their fears, but we never thought it would happen to us, and nor did they. A working journalist is never quite real to anyone, including herself.
In 1993, thanks to a combination of luck and late-in-the-game mentoring, I became an editorial writer. Things were changing on what was sometimes reverently, sometimes archly, referred to as the Fourth Floor. When I was first hired, the Journal’s editorial pages were reliably, even notoriously, conservative. They reflected the sympathies of Michael Metcalf, certainly, but also the paper’s history: in the 19th century, before the editors embraced independence, The Providence Journal was the official mouthpiece of the Republican Party. After Metcalf’s untimely death, in a 1987 bicycle accident, the editorial pages gradually became more moderate. Yet if the positions softened, a tone I can only describe as tetchy barely altered. Not long after the Civil War, theJournal ran an editorial noting, with scarcely veiled irritation, that Robert E. Lee was simply not that great.
Whatever the subject, I found myself struggling to hold a caustic tone at bay. It was as though a perpetually aggrieved ghost wandered the Fourth Floor’s Art Deco hallways, looking to take up residence in whatever poor soul sat in front of a keyboard. I began to suspect that if self-censorship was a part of my newspaper heritage, perhaps it was not native to me personally.
In any case, the voice behind the Journal’s unsigned editorials scarcely changed over the years. Its condemnation of Robert E. Lee carried over into bitter denunciations, more than a century later, of Buddy Cianci, the flamboyant Providence mayor who abused his power, and wound up in federal prison. It was as though one person were writing, hectoring Rhode Island and the nation, and would never quit.
In the 1990s, the paper’s circulation began to decline. To reduce costs, in 1992, executives proposed a buyout program. Four years later, the signing of the federal Telecommunications Act liberalized the rules governing ownership of television stations, unleashing a media consolidation frenzy. Stephen Hamblett, Michael Metcalf’s successor, announced an unprecedented plan to cut 100 jobs in the Journal’s publishing division, while insisting to a skeptical newsroom that the company was not for sale. Some 150 positions were ultimately shed through a combination of early retirements and buyouts.
In February of 1997, the newsroom cynics’ predictions proved true. TheJournal’s shareholders voted to sell the company, to Texas-based A.H. Belo Corp., for $1.5 billion. At the time, Belo owned four newspapers, including its flagship Dallas Morning News, and seven television stations. Combining its holdings with the Journal’s positioned it to become the eighth largest TV ownership group in the country. Fabulous revenues danced in the deal- makers’ heads.
Still, newspapers everywhere were struggling. The Journal gradually began consolidating and then closing its statewide bureaus. In Providence, workers grumbled that the profits from the Journal and its lucrative printing operation were being shipped to Texas rather than reinvested at home. Another round of buyouts claimed three dozen staffers.
In 2008, Belo split itself in two, sheltering the TV stations under a separate corporate entity and leaving the newspapers to fend for themselves. The financial crisis sparked a new round of layoffs at the Journal, sending a tremor of anxiety through the staff that never really eased. In 2012, 23 people were laid off; the next year, Belo sought to cut 30 more.
In 2014, retaining only the Dallas paper, Belo sold the Journal to GateHouse Media for $46 million. At the time, GateHouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, was on a buying spree, scooping up small and mid-sized newspapers across the country. The Journal would be its largest daily.
Shortly after the purchase was complete, GateHouse cut 22 jobs. Among them were two positions on the editorial pages. The department had been staffed by eight full-time writers and editors when I began but at that point was down to four. With the GateHouse cuts, we became two: me, and the boss of me.
I am not sure why leaving a newspaper can feel like abandoning a loved one, but it is said time and again. In 1933, announcing his retirement from the Clara City Herald after 38 years, Great-grandfather Cornelius wrote: “It is like losing a member of the family to part with it.” In 1985, my mother’s illness with multiple sclerosis forced the sale of the Milbank Herald Advance, nearly breaking her heart.
Toward the end, pausing from my work, I used to sometimes look at a decade-old Journal phone directory, still printed on paper. It listed everyone’s extension, along with the general numbers for advertising, circulation, and customer service.
I would linger over the names, so many names, of people I had known. Dozens upon dozens had either thought it wisest to leave or been pushed out. The tradition, for those voluntarily leaving, had always been an afternoon gathering for cake and funny gifts — sometimes a mock front page — and appreciative speeches. By now, the cake ritual had become numbingly frequent. In the beginning, two or more large sheet cakes were needed. I watched as the cakes, still beautifully decorated, grew smaller and smaller, until just one would do.
A few weeks after I was laid off, another round of buyouts was offered. I was told that this time, in honor of the five newsroom staffers who took the deal, there were cookies.
Once, when somebody asked me how things were going at the Journal, I said it was like being in a nursing home, only no one was elderly. A handful of younger people had been brought on, but mainly, people just kept disappearing. Among those who remained, the habit of journalistic detachment was being refined into a terrible art.
A mood took over that was missing from the old days. Striving gave way to surviving, and a compassionate camaraderie settled in. Tension still abounded, certainly, even bitter arguments and tears. But as almost everyone recognized, the cause was too few people trying to do too much. Many of us felt the slow burn of shame as we fell short of our own formerly ironclad standards. All of us knew the fear that today might be our last.
And so we felt for each other, but there was more to it. Perhaps the mission to which we had dutifully given lip service over the years — the mission of uncovering the truth — was no abstraction but a project as vital to democracy as our civics books had always insisted. Now, thanks to an explosion in new media outlets, our patient if not always perfect cultivation of the facts was being uprooted by a cyclone of disordered information, rumor, and outright falsehoods. In the meantime, a peculiar quiet spread across the state. Everywhere, we sensed, corners were being cut; deals were being struck, at public expense.
In the course of 185 years, The Providence Journal had made itself into an institution as important to Rhode Island as paved roads, public schools and sanitation systems. Its struggles may be generic to the industry, but its fate is being taken personally. For all its faults, the Journal was and still is a communal space, permitting Rhode Islanders to know each other. And knowing is the basis of trust. It may be a paradox that mistrustful reporters deliver this honey to the hive, but the American system thrives on it.
As Rhode Islanders well know, their state was founded by Roger Williams, a man ejected from the Puritan precincts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he could not abide being told how to think about God. Helped by native Americans, he fled through the snow in the winter of 1636. In what would become Providence, he founded a new community where religious freedom — freedom of thought — came before all else.
Rhode Island, the Ocean State, became a sanctuary for outcasts. What other place, after all, would provide harbor to a discontented child of the Midwest, even lend her a voice? I remember telling a friend there once, as we crested a dune, that the ocean reminded me of the prairie. One look and you wanted to spread your arms wide. No words are necessary; you are pretty sure you exist.